The GOP’s Immigration Jam

Jim Vandehei and Mike Allen, Politico, December 10, 2012

Think Republicans feel in a jam about raising taxes? Wait until President Barack Obama springs comprehensive immigration reform on them early next year.

With Obama making plain his plans to push immigration soon, leading establishment Republicans—fresh off Mitt Romney getting his clock cleaned by 44 percentage points among Hispanics last month—insist they are now very much open to a comprehensive package, including eventual citizenship for illegal immigrants.

But while top Republicans think they need to make a big move on the issue and actually want a bipartisan deal with Obama, the rank and file remain skeptical. {snip}

“There’s a growing sense that this is an opportunity that should be taken,” said Ed Gillespie, a former Republican National Committee chairman and top adviser to Romney’s presidential campaign. “There’s no instinct like a survival instinct.”

Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor, told us that Republicans should strike first and offer “a conservative immigration proposal that is comprehensive” before Obama’s State of the Union address. {snip}

Many of the Republicans who would have to vote on such a package—and then run for reelection in off-year primaries and general elections dominated by white conservatives—aren’t so sure it’s such a great deal. Regardless of exit polls, demographic trends and lectures from party leaders, lawmakers know that many voters—especially primary voters, and especially their primary voters—hate anything that smacks of amnesty. {snip}

“Political consultants in Washington are panicking about Hispanics, and their solution is to grant amnesty,” said a conservative GOP lawmaker, who insisted on anonymity in order to speak candidly. “They’re afraid Hispanics hate Republicans, so they want more of them? It doesn’t pass the laugh test. This is an important issue with the Republican base, and members are right to be worried about getting primaried.”

GOP sources tell us a small but influential group of conservative leaders have begun talks to provide cover to House lawmakers fearful about the political implications of immigration. Policy advisers to Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin and others are working together on a series of smaller immigration bills that the House and Senate could pass over the next two years.

Karl Rove, the former top strategist for President George W. Bush, said, “Many Republicans who were once reluctant to support comprehensive reform are now open to it as long as it doesn’t include amnesty—the forgiveness of an offense without penalty.”

Rove added: “And many Republicans have come to understand our borders will never be fully secure until pressure is reduced through a guest worker program and resolving the status of those who are here already.”

The Rubio strategy is to take a sequential approach, first passing easier bills, like a guest-worker program. {snip}

But any Republican efforts to play gradual, political small ball with immigration may be stymied by the president’s strategy: Obama is inclined to push for one big bill that includes the one thing the Rubio-Ryan axis might want to avoid—a pathway to citizenship for undocumented workers now in the country.

Advisers say Obama plans to begin a public campaign shortly after the fiscal cliff is resolved, using social media and grass-roots activity to harness business groups, liberal nonprofits, and the activists who helped generate a record Hispanic turnout in November. {snip}

{snip}

“The longer that immigration is on the table politically, the more benefits that Democrats can reap,” said Jonathan Collegio of American Crossroads, the best-funded of the outside Republican groups.

A growing number of Republicans get this. Look no further than Rubio telling us at Playbook Breakfast last week that he sees a “better than 50/50” chance Obama will sign a pathway to citizenship within four years. “This is going to take awhile,” Rubio said. “But we have to do it, it’s important to do it, and I believe we can do it.”

Fox News host Sean Hannity even told his radio listeners after the election that he’s now open to immigration reform, saying it should be framed as a pathway to opportunity and prosperity. “We’ve gotta get rid of the immigration issue altogether,” Hannity said.

{snip}

A POLITICO/George Washington University/Battleground Poll out Monday found 62 percent of respondents say they would support “an immigration reform proposal that allows illegal or undocumented immigrants to earn citizenship over a period of several years”—including 50 percent of conservative Republicans and 52 percent of strong tea party supporters.

{snip}

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